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Class Dismissed

September 2 was a bad day at Barnum Elementary.

Just a few days earlier, teachers at the west Denver school had started the new year with considerable apprehensions. By all accounts, the 1992-1993 session had been a difficult one. But they still had hopes that a fresh start could turn things around.

And then the news hit.
"We heard that Hillary Adams was dead," one Barnum teacher recalls. Adams had just finished a four-year stint as a bilingual first-grade teacher at the school, and had hardly begun her new job teaching second grade at Cheltenham Elementary. At 28 she was a skilled, dedicated teacher whom her friends remember as enthusiastic and almost always happy.

"Yes," the teacher continues. "It was an awful day."
It got worse. Over the next 24 hours, it became clear that Adams had taken her own life, and that her former students would have to be told.

"My daughter Joanna loved Miss Adams to pieces," says Jennifer Eckendorf, whose two children attended Barnum last year. "Even when Joanna was in trouble, she loved her teacher."
She particularly loved Miss Adams for bringing in a dentist as a guest speaker. After that, Joanna decided to become a dentist. "She was always looking in people's mouths," her mother laughs, "and she even wrote a book shaped like a tooth. Hillary, on her own time, drove Joanna over to the dentist's office to give him the book. They got to go in her little sports car and everything."

Joanna could barely comprehend that her favorite teacher was gone. "She was brokenhearted," her mother says. "She cried a lot and she talked to Hillary a lot, through God. Then, when she found out how Hillary died, she got angry and punched the wall."

Barnum's adults have had an equally trying time dealing with Adams's death.
"It's not over," says another teacher. "It's like a knot that won't go away."
It's a knot some feel would be better left untangled.
"People never understand why someone kills himself," explains Barnum teacher David Bokken, who thinks nothing would be gained by an examination of Hillary Adams's life and death. "They want to find some reason to point to. I think it's way too complicated for that."
But Bokken's colleagues, many of whom say they're worried that talking to Westword could cost them their jobs, are not content to let the tragedy of Hillary Adams rest in peace. Because the very atmosphere that made them so apprehensive, they say, is what finally got to Hillary. Although no one--not even her closest friends and family--knows what drove Adams to such a final solution, everyone remembers the particular stresses of her last year. "To work in that school was like professional suicide," says former Barnum teacher Jerry Smith. "When Hillary committed literal suicide, it was almost more than we could take."

Lisa Wright had become Adams's good friend while teaching music at Barnum, and after moving to Colorado Springs continued to speak with her every week. "I remember her telling me there was such tension," she says. "She said all of a sudden everyone was afraid for their jobs. It was all about how things were going at school, and it just wasn't like Hillary. "By summer," Wright continues, "she knew that once upon a time she was a good teacher, but no more."

"I wish you could have known her," says Hillary's mother, Pat Adams. "She had this gentle way. She was my youngest, born on Valentine's Day, an Aquarian. She had red hair--later on it was faded a little with perms. And she was always kind of a person of the world."
Hillary grew up in Evergreen with an older brother and sister, a father who'd worked for years as an industrial salesman and a mother who evolved from housewife to massage therapist to psychotherapist. If her friends and family remember it accurately, Hillary's childhood was a happy one.

"I was six years older, so we didn't really get close until after we grew up," recalls Wendy Smith, Hillary's sister, "but after that, really, she was my best friend."
When it came time to go to college, Hillary "wasn't sure what she wanted to do, but was interested in a lot of things," her mother says. "She was good at putting together clothing, so she went to the CSU school of design. Her first year, a human development class was required--and it just grabbed her." Adams became one of the first students to enroll in Colorado State University's new, five-year human development program, which took her to Spain and Mexico as part of an ultimately successful quest to become bilingual. Adams finished up her education with a teaching certificate from Metropolitan State College; by the time she graduated, she knew she wanted to concentrate on bilingual elementary-school education. In the fall of 1989, after a year of substitute teaching and parking cars at a downtown hotel, Adams began her first real assignment at Barnum Elementary School.  

"With all of her skills, she could have gone to a ritzy school," says Jenny Sullivan, mother of two Barnum students. "She chose instead to go to Barnum, and she was wonderful."
Maybe Barnum wasn't ritzy, but it quickly became home to Hillary Adams. She'd gotten off to a rough start--as part of a team of four young bilingual teachers, she'd unknowingly supplanted several longtime Barnum teachers, and their friends resented it--but she toughed it out. "Hillary was strong, and she survived," remembers Wright, also a new teacher that year.

And soon Adams was thriving. "She was so attached to that place," says her sister Wendy. "She was busy every afternoon after school, doing something with kids. A lot of kids' parents didn't speak English, and she was able to talk to them. For that matter, some kids came to school without coats or shoes, and she'd take them to the lost-and-found and get them stuff."

Barnum is in a working-class neighborhood where the need for bilingual teachers was--and is--acute: At least 150 of the school's 475 students come from homes where either a mixture of Spanish and English, or Spanish alone, is spoken. But Adams didn't limit her attentions to this group.

"The average teacher was just not as creative as Hillary," Wright recalls. "If her kids were reading a book, she had them perform it as a play for the whole school, and it was always a class-A production." Colleagues still marvel over the time Adams's class performed "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" as a rap song.

When a decision had to be made whether to raze or renovate the old Barnum building, Adams volunteered to sit on the redesign committee. Soon still more of her after-school hours were taken up with a seat on Barnum's Collaborative Decision-Making team, one of the innovations that helped avert a Denver Public Schools teachers' strike three years ago. CDMs were designed to give parents, neighbors and teachers more say at individual schools; Adams was one of three teachers elected to Barnum's team. The job wasn't easy.

"I remember Hillary going to seven-hour-long meetings after school, quite a few of which were not productive," Wright recalls. "She hadn't liked the CDM training, either--she told me it was nothing but eight hours of games."
Adams plugged away, despite her reservations. And she had a good outlet for stress: Her particular group of teachers enjoyed socializing on evenings and weekends, and always on Friday afternoons at Bob's Pizzeria, when vented frustrations flowed as freely as the beer. Outside of school, Adams devoted herself to her dog and two cats, and to softball and volleyball--passions she shared with Barnum's then-principal, Donald Wilson.

By the time Wilson came to Barnum, in 1988, he'd spent 31 years with DPS. By his own admission, he was more than ready for retirement, and some teachers and parents regarded him as tired and passive. Others, however, grow nostalgic whenever his name is mentioned. Many recall seeing Wilson walking children home from school or breaking up fights in the neighborhood. "He was the old-style principal," says Dave Reithman, who retired from teaching early this fall. "His idea was that the school will present a united front to the outside world. From my point of view, he was a great principal. He supported the teachers, provided discipline and let the teachers teach. He and Hillary were friends."

Wilson retired in the spring of 1992, just when the Barnum renovation was beginning and the school's entire population was being bused to a vacant school two miles away. His replacement, Judith Chavez, had to deal with that, as well as with the aversion to change that seems endemic with teachers. But Chavez looked forward to the challenge. After spending almost a decade in the DPS curriculum department, she was ready to go back to school.

"I came to Barnum to really make a difference in the lives of children," she says. "My number-one priority was children."
At her first school assembly, she mentioned that she was from Barnum. "You can make it, too," she told the students. At her first meeting with teachers, Chavez reiterated that she had come to Barnum as an advocate for the children--hardly a controversial statement, it would seem. But Reithman didn't like the sound of it.

"It was more than what she said," he recalls. "There was the implication that kids came first, teachers came second. As if there were sides to be chosen." An old-school teacher by his own definition--he was not above ordering troublemakers to drop and give him twenty pushups--Reithman expected the principal to be firmly in his corner. Not long into the 1992-1993 school year, he decided that Chavez was not--and walked out of a staff meeting she was conducting. "She was saying all kinds of unbelievable things to us," he explains. "Yelling at us as if we were children, telling us we were unprofessional, going on and on about 'the rumor mill' and people talking about her behind her back. I didn't need that."
"We sat there stunned," another teacher recalls. "We sat there in a big group while she harangued us about being unprofessional and overly emotional. Then, when she was done with that, she said if we ever need anything, don't hesitate to come to her. It was confusing and scary."
It wasn't long before the rumor mill was working overtime. "But it was more than that," one teacher insists. "I have taught for a long time, and my previous principals let us teach and were happy to have us ask questions. When we question Judy, she seems to feel we are attacking her."  

Librarian Jerry Smith was one of the more persistent questioners. Although it was his first year at Barnum, he had arrived with two decades of teaching experience, not just at DPS, but in prisons, foster homes and the Peace Corps. The time he'd spent counseling gang members in jail had made him particularly interested in working with problematic children. But that, along with many of his plans, never materialized at Barnum, where he was assigned to hold detention time in the library and also run the gifted-and-talented program.

"I was told to schedule some gifted-and-talented time for every child in the school," he says. "It's a nice thought, but an impossible one. I complained, but the principal gave it her blessings."
Smith already had his hands full with a "group of ten or twelve fifth-grade students who controlled the behavior at school," he says. "Anytime they felt like it, they challenged me, because they knew they could do it and win. If I sent them to the principal's office, nothing would happen to them."

Hillary Adams, too, wanted more support from Chavez. "I had to help her document certain discipline problems, because she was afraid she would not be believed," Smith says. "One of her kids exhibited particularly bizarre behavior--he hit other children and talked back, and finally actually urinated on another kid's jacket." When Adams sent him to the principal, "all that happened was his mom said it wouldn't happen again. This child had no respect for people or property, and Hillary wanted discipline and structure for him." Instead, Smith says, "the principal went right along with the parent and child, and against Hillary. We heard some more of, 'You have to understand, this child comes from a dysfunctional background.' We started to get a little tired of that."

Ever since April Crumley's son enrolled at Barnum six years ago, followed by her daughter one year later, she's made it her business to be a presence at school--volunteering, decorating the lunchroom for holidays and keeping the information-and-gossip hotline for parents humming. She's been both a joy and a pain to the Barnum staff, as she (and they) will readily tell you. "I've never been one to keep my mouth shut," Crumley declares. The year Judy Chavez became principal, Crumley did plenty of talking. "Before Mrs. Chavez," she says, "this school was more close-knit, more caring--there was more camaraderie."

Not that she planned to let a sudden chill keep her from her self-appointed rounds. Crumley carried on as president of the Barnum Association of Parents and Teachers. And then one night late in September 1992, she received a call from a concerned fifth-grade parent. "She said she thought the music teacher was a Satanist," Crumley recalls. "I guess she had done a Native American music thing with the kids. Naturally, I thought it was a ridiculous complaint."

The next day, Crumley says, she was horrified to hear that music teacher Andrea Lawrence had been placed on a three-week administrative leave while the charges were examined. "Another parent and I went to see Judy Chavez," she says. "We told her parents were complaining. And she told us it was none of our business."

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, parent Jenny Sullivan was just hearing the news from her eleven-year-old son, Ian. "We knew about the Indian musical theater thing," she says. "They lit a candle, and it was about Mother Earth and Sky. We had no problem with it. But our son was upset. He told us that a bunch of kids ganged up on the music teacher, that they were plotting against her. They all got together and said she was teaching them Satanic worship. My son was very sad about it."  

Sullivan also dropped by Chavez's office to let her know she was happy to have her son learn about Native American beliefs. He missed his teacher and wanted her back, she told the principal. Chavez responded that Lawrence had been suspended "because of the safety issue, because she did light a candle," Sullivan remembers.

Three weeks later Lawrence was back at work. But by then, "she'd lost all respect from the kids," Sullivan says. "She was harassed for the rest of the year."

Andrea Lawrence is not teaching at Barnum this year, and doesn't want to talk about the school. "I've shut the door on Barnum," she says succinctly. "It was the most horrible year of my life."

"She didn't want to fight it," theorizes Jerry Smith. "Teachers want security. If you go against the principal, you don't get that." Smith speaks from firsthand knowledge. One morning last fall, he says, Chavez pulled him from his classroom and told him he'd been accused of abusing a child. "The mother had already called the police, and they had already called social services," Smith recalls. "I was charged with putting three small bruises on this child's arm during detention time." Smith--who says he never touched the boy, although he did take away his tray because "the child was terribly out of control" and about to throw it--was immediately placed on administrative leave for three and a half months. "We went all the way to court," he says, "and the prosecuting attorneys told the judge they did not think they could prove I had done this, and even if I were to confess to it, they could not prove I wasn't well within my rights to do so."
Smith returned to school. Two weeks later Chavez put an official reprimand in his permanent file. "She told me she had written this letter because she felt the child's charges were believable, even if the courts didn't," Smith says. "At the same time, she told me she wanted to support me any way she could. I have tried to figure that one out for hours and hours."

When Smith's position was eliminated from Barnum's budget last spring, he was ready to move on. He didn't go quietly, however. He's filed two official grievances against Chavez. And at his final meeting with her, he offered some unofficial comments. "She kept telling us she was 'here for the children,' and finally I challenged her, a little heatedly, I admit," he says. "I said, 'Are you saying I am not here for the children?' And she backed down a little after that." Chavez says she wasn't aware of any dissatisfaction at the school until after Adams's death, but concedes that "it was a difficult year. I was a new principal, and because Hillary was an advocate for teachers and children, she was very vocal."

Especially at CDM meetings. "She said she was being overridden a lot, and it started to get to her," Adams' sister remembers. And the CDM's toughest task--cutting the budget--was still to come.

Adams knew that whatever decision the committee made would directly affect Sue Doyle, a fellow first-grade teacher who'd come to Barnum on a one-year assignment and hoped to be hired on permanently. Ironically, Doyle had had some difficulty being accepted by the Barnum teachers; she knew Chavez personally, and was seen as her friend and confidante. As the end of the school year drew near, however, Adams and other teachers realized they'd come to like Doyle as well as respect her teaching ability.

According to Doyle herself, the CDM worked long hours trying to devise a way to keep her in the budget. Finally it settled on two options--only one of which included Doyle--and put them to the entire teaching staff for a vote. On a Friday, the teachers voted to keep Doyle. The next Monday, Jerry Smith recalls, "Judy announced that we had run over her like a freight train and that she wasn't about to let it happen again. Then she vetoed our decision, and Sue was out."

"We were trying to be fair," says another teacher. "We had met for hours and voted--and then Judy told us she was embarrassed and humiliated by what we had done."
Doyle, who had indeed once counted Chavez among her friends, was devastated--so much so that she went to Chavez's office. "And Judy told me that she had heard I was saying negative things about her, and that she was tired of the rumors," Doyle recalls. "Then she told me my expectations for my class were too high, anyway. And she said no, I would not be coming back next year."  

"It's still an issue today," Chavez admits. "Some of the teachers were under the impression that they were empowered to make all the decisions, but I don't think the message came out clear that the principal does have the last word."

Combing Adams's last months for clues is a singularly depressing task, but those who were close to her are still doing it. Yes, they agree, Hillary had a bad year at school, as they all did. But only Adams became obsessed with the changes at Barnum--and with its principal.

"All of a sudden she felt a lot of animosity," friend Lisa Wright remembers. "Judy Chavez had come in to evaluate her class. I don't know the details, except that Hillary was upset about it, and she felt like Judy didn't think she was a good teacher. I know she had several conflicts with Judy, and after each one she got closer to thinking she was just the worst teacher and not doing anything right."
"Looking back," says Smith, "there were signs we should have heeded. She was always the last to leave Bob's, and she was drinking plenty, although Lord knows I drank tons of beer myself that year. She may have had an eating disorder. She never completely expressed herself to anyone, even though we could tell she was upset."
A persistent sinus infection added to Adams' woes. After she had sinus surgery in April, Adams began a frantic search for a roommate. If she didn't find one, she told friends, she'd be unable to pay the rent. Once, when Chavez refused to let her take a call at school from a potential roommate, she became hysterical.

Wendy and her mother could only recall one other time when they'd seen Hillary so upset: shortly after she'd been sexually assaulted at college. "It was a terrible thing," her mother says, "and sometimes she did get depressed when that came up. But she stayed in school, her GPA was high, and she seemed to be handling it."

But in the spring of 1993, Hillary Adams was not handling it. When she announced her plans to leave Barnum, her family was relieved. Adams received job offers from three other DPS schools, but leaving her Barnum kids never seemed to sit right, in part because the other positions weren't bilingual.

"Hillary was a very good bilingual teacher," says Reithman, "and she really didn't want to change schools. She told me the only reason she did it was because of the principal." Chavez disagrees. "Adams was a very outstanding bilingual teacher, very caring, very professional, very dedicated," she says. "I had very high regard for Hillary. She and I had a very good working relationship."
In fact, Chavez adds, Adams thought enough of her to give her a parting present: the book La Reina de las Nieves, a Spanish translation of the Hans Christian Anderson story of the Snow Queen. The Queen reminded her of Chavez, Adams told the principal.

Chavez appears to have considered that a compliment, although it's difficult to see why. Just a glance at the book's illustrations of sad children adrift in a frozen world might have made her wonder. And the story itself is anything but flattering. In it, a small boy is taken prisoner by the Snow Queen, a beautiful woman in white furs whose lips are "colder than ice" and whose kiss "penetrates almost to his heart, almost freezing it solid." A few of these scary kisses make the boy forget all about the little girl who loves him back home, and he rides off to Lapland to live in the Queen's icy castle. "I'm not going to kiss you again," the Queen says, as they drive away. "Another of my kisses would kill you."

The girl risks her life to follow the boy, and eventually finds him frozen almost black, playing with shards of ice as if they were a jigsaw puzzle and trying to remember how to talk--all because the Queen's kisses "had robbed him of all sensation, and his heart was like a lump of ice." Using the power of love--the only power that works against the Snow Queen--she thaws his heart and brings him home, where they "forget forever the nightmares of the desolate grandeur of the far-off palace of the Snow Queen." By summer it seemed that Hillary Adams's life was warming up. Her sister introduced her to a man, Greg Baldwin, and their time together was "incredibly fun," Wendy says. (Baldwin declined to be interviewed for this story.) The last time Reithman saw Adams, he went to Central City with her and Baldwin, and they took in the opera and more than a few slot machines. Reithman says he thought they were a great couple; he was happy--and relieved--for Hillary. Her personal life seemed to be going well, but Adams still couldn't decide which job offer to accept. In fact, her reason seemed to crumble whenever the subject of school came up. "She had never questioned her ability to teach before," Wendy says. "But she kept saying, 'I just can't do it.'"  

Wright heard the same thing whenever she saw Adams, which was often: Wright's wedding was scheduled for the end of summer, and Adams was to be a bridesmaid. "Finally," Wright recalls, "I said, 'Hillary, you don't have to teach. There are a million other things you could do.' But she said, 'No, teaching is the only thing I can do. If I can't teach, I've failed.'"

In August, two weeks before the school year began, Adams finally accepted the offer at Cheltenham Elementary School. She became increasingly anxious as the first day of work approached, friends remember. She developed another sinus infection, and once again worried about getting a roommate. She showed up for teachers' orientation, but left in such a state of agitation that she had to skip the first two days of school, her sister says. On the third day, she returned to Cheltenham and fainted during lunch. She was revived by fellow teachers, only to faint again. Adams was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and admitted to the psychiatric ward for a day of observation. Her mother, who drove west from her home in Burlington to pick up Hillary, learned that her daughter had been given anti-anxiety medication, and that traces of amphetamines had been found in her bloodstream, "which really upset Hillary," she recalls. "She said she hadn't done any kind of drugs at all since college, and the doctors thought it might be the sinus pills."

Pat Adams spent the next few days with Hillary, who caught up on lost sleep and had long, cathartic talks with her mother when she was awake. After three days, Pat went home, satisfied that her daughter was on the mend. Adams went up to Evergreen to see her sister and boyfriend.

"All her anxieties were equal--the moving, the teaching, her animals," Wendy says. "I told her her animals could stay with us, that we'd help her move. I told her I'd go with her to her new teaching job. I thought we had this all taken care of."
Before Hillary left to spend the night at Baldwin's, she agreed to a thrift-shopping expedition with her sister the next day. But when Wendy came to pick her up, Hillary was gone. Her car, purse and jacket were all there--but she was missing. So was Baldwin's .44 magnum. The Jefferson County Sheriff's office soon arrived with bloodhounds, Lisa Wright came up from Colorado Springs to make and distribute hundreds of fliers, and Wendy and her fiance searched the town for clues. Late the next afternoon, Baldwin walked across the street, no more than a few hundred yards from where the dogs had been, and found Hillary Adams. She had sat down against a tree and shot herself in the head.

Numb with grief, Hillary's family went about the business of planning her funeral. Shopping for a coffin was particularly surreal. Most of the family favored cremation, but they didn't know Hillary's wishes. Meanwhile, they were struck by how hard it was to find (or afford) a simple, unadorned pine box. Finally, Wendy's carpenter fiance offered to make one. "And really," Pat Adams reflects, "it was a work of art."

Meanwhile, Wright called on Judith Chavez and asked if she could speak with the Barnum teachers about Hillary. Chavez gave her permission, Wright says, but asked her to wait until the DPS crisis team arrived. When teachers saw Wright in the building, though, they started coming up to talk to her. That angered Chavez, Wright says. "She called me into her office," Wright recalls. "She said, 'I want you to know that if you say anything about me, I can sue you for libel.'" Wright left in tears, but not before she handed over a six-page description of the events leading up to Hillary Adams's death.

The crisis team read aloud some excerpts from Wright's letter. "Then they told us each to share our innermost and deepest feelings, in front of Mrs. Chavez," one teacher remembers. "But of course, nobody could."

"I would have never guessed it could happen," Chavez says of Adams's death. "As far as the way I handled it, I had just lost my mother. I was still going through my own grieving. As far as the staff, I did involve the crisis team. I also invited our school psychiatrist to meet with the staff. As far as informing the community...we didn't have a lot of details."
So instead Chavez sent a memo home with students. It began with this: Dear Parents, It is with sadness and regret that I have to inform you of the death of Ms. Hillary Adams, who taught at Barnum for five years. While there might be rumors about the cause of death, all that has been confirmed is that she passed away..."  

Over 300 people came to Evergreen for Hillary Adams's funeral. Eighteen substitutes were found so that all of her Barnum friends could be there; Judith Chavez stayed away. Eleven-year-old Ian Sullivan, whose sister Mattie had been in Adams's class, surprised everyone when he walked to the front of the chapel to speak. By the time he had finished seven brief sentences, everyone was crying.

And yet, says Pat Adams, "it was a beautiful day. Nobody wanted it to end. It was a day of unconditional love, and you don't get to experience that often. Even up on the hill where we buried her, in such a deluge of rain and hail, people were holding each other's umbrellas, talking about Hillary." Much of the talk, of course, centered on teaching. "That's almost all they talked about," says Reithman, "that she was a natural teacher, that she was born to do it. Sometimes I even think they may have talked almost too much about it. It may," he decides, "have been too much of her life.


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